Monday, October 19, 2009

Calling in the Sleuth...

One of the things that make a well-written mystery compelling is that it’s believable. We can imagine that the people in the story are real and that the events in the story could actually happen. When the events in a story seem too contrived, or there’s too much use of “the long arm of coincidence,” it’s harder to believe the story could be real. That takes away from the suspense, and it can detract from the mystery. In the best mystery stories, all of the events fall out naturally from the story’s plot. That includes the way the sleuth gets involved in the case. It may seem on the surface that it doesn’t matter how the sleuth gets involved, especially if he or she is in law enforcement. But in well-written mysteries, the sleuth’s involvement “flows” from the plot, just as the rest of the events and characters do.

Some sleuths are private detectives, and they get involved in cases when clients come to them. A great number of Golden Age sleuths fall into this category. For instance, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has his own detective agency. In general, clients come to him with cases. In The High Window, for instance, Marlow is initially hired to recover a valuable old coin belonging to a wealthy matron. He’s also hired to find her daughter-in-law, who disappeared at the same time. Marlow soon gets tangled up with the gambling underworld, some family secrets, and the police. He also has to contend with some murders that occur during his search. But the connection – the way in which Marlow gets involved in the case – is through being hired to do so.

Many of Agatha Christie’s novels are also like that. In Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the case of the murder of Amyas Crale, a famous painter whose wife was convicted of the murder. Poirot gets involved in the case when Crale’s daughter comes to him, insisting that her mother was innocent and asking him to reopen the case. Poirot is intrigued by the case and challenged by the fact that it’s sixteen years old, and there is no more physical evidence to use.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Mma Precious Ramotswe also often gets involved in cases when clients come to her. That’s what happens in Tears of the Giraffe, when she’s hired by Andrea Curtin, an American woman whose son disappeared ten years ago. Precious travels to the former commune where Andrea’s son lived, and through her unique style of gentle questioning, her observation and what she knows of human nature, she’s able to find out what happened.

An interesting note about private detective sleuths: Since they don’t really work for law enforcement, they’re not required to take cases, and it can add interesting texture to a story when they are reluctant. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is asked to find out who’s been sending threatening letters to Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who’s traveling by train. He refuses to take the case because, as he tells Ratchett, I do not like your face.

When Ratchett is murdered on the first night of the train journey, Poirot gets involved in the investigation as much by coincidence as anything else. He happens to be on board the train. The same is true of his involvement in Death in the Air (AKA Death in the Clouds) and Death on the Nile. In both of those cases, Poirot happens to be traveling at the same time as the murder victim is. Even though these are coincidences, though, Christie doesn’t stretch the “long arm” too far.

Other sleuths, of course, are members of law enforcement. They’re sent out on cases, and their involvement begins then. That often happens, for instance, to Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis. But when the official detective’s involvement also takes on a personal dimension, this can add richness to a story. In one of Morse’s cases, for instance, The Dead of Jericho, he deliberately involves himself for personal reasons. As the novel opens, Morse meets Anne Scott at a party and finds himself attracted to her. He’s called away on a case, and all he has time to do is get her address. He finds himself thinking of her frequently and one day, goes to the address she’s given him – only to find that she’s just apparently hung herself. That human level of involvement adds texture to this story and makes Morse seem more real.

The same is true of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti in The Girl of his Dreams. In that novel, Brunetti and Captain Vianello are called to the scene of the drowning of a young gypsy girl in a canal. Brunetti’s involvement in the case is official to start with, but it becomes personal when he is haunted by the young girl and obsessed with finding out what happened to her. He’s confronted by the fact that no-one has reported a missing child. He also has to face the realities of socioeconomic class differences, prejudice and bureaucracy as he searches for the girl’s identity and her killer. Although Brunetti officially gets involved because he’s sent to the scene of the crime, his involvement ends up going much deeper than that. Brunetti’s personal interest in the case adds to the story and makes him (and the dead girl) more believable.

Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford is also a very believable character because his involvement in his cases is often much more than simply what’s required of him as an official. For instance, in Road Rage, he and his team of detectives are on the trail of a group of terrorists who are bent on preventing the development of a new highway that will cut through the woods around Kingsmarkham. Wexford gets even more deeply and personally involved when the terrorists kidnap several residents, including Wexford’s wife, Dora, who’s been working on a committee to save the woods.

Unlike “official” sleuths like Wexford, Poirot and Bernutti, amateur sleuths’ involvement isn’t part of their job descriptions. So their involvement has to flow naturally from either their relationship to the other characters or their role in the setting. For those mystery novels, the key isn’t to add “personal” layers to the character of the sleuth as much as it is to involve the sleuth in a believable way – to be able to answer the question, “But would s/he *really* get involved in this?” Sometimes, authors accomplish this by making connections between the sleuth and the victim. For example, that’s how Laurien Berenson’s sleuth, Melanie Travis, begins her career as a sleuth. In A Pedigree to Die For, Travis’ Uncle Max dies suddenly of what’s thought to be a heart attack. When his widow, Melanie’s Aunt Peg, finds one of her prize poodles missing, she’s convinced that the disappearance is related to Max’s death and persuades Melanie to help her find out what happened. At first, Melanie is reluctant to get involved. She has a very full life already as a full-time employed single mother. However, her family connection and Aunt Peg’s insistence convince her to start asking questions. In this case, the sleuth’s involvement flows naturally from the kind of murder and the murder victim.

My own Joel Williams’ involvement in cases flows in part from his role as a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice; his students and colleagues know that he’s got expertise in the field and, in B-Very Flat, one of his students asks him to use that expertise to help her find out the truth behind the death of her partner, a talented violinist. Williams’ involvement also comes from the fact that he’s a former police officer. He doesn’t have access to police records any more, and he’s got no official status, so he’s not sent out on cases. But he knows several members of the active force, so he’s able to be involved in cases in a very informal way.

How does your favorite sleuth get involved in cases? How does that involvement flow from the rest of the story?


  1. This subject has amused me for years. Literally, years. I have no problem with policemen getting involved; its their job after all. And I love Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, etc. has always struck me as hilarious that no one in these books ever gets nervous about these characters showing up even though Death follows them like a faithful shadow. Wouldn't word get around? These sleuths make dangerous dinner guests.


  2. And thanks so much, by the way, for featuring my blog! I'm rather chuffed.


  3. I love the way that Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote" kept tripping up over bodies all the time! Cabot Cove must have been the murder capital of the US. :) I was able, however, to suspend my disbelief (with some difficulty.)

    With an amateur sleuth, it's tricky. I'd say they need to be directly involved with either the victim or one of the suspects.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elspeth - I really like your sense of humor! It's certainly true that in any kind of real-life situation, it's hard to craft a series of mysteries where people don't start wondering how the sleuth keeps attracting all kinds of bodies! Your underlying point - that it's not always realistic - is well-taken. Somehow, Agatha Christie was able to make her Miss Marple's involvement quite believable.

    And it's my pleasure to feature your blog; it's interesting, witty and thought-provoking.

    Elizabeth - It's funny you would mention Murder She Wrote. Friends of mine had a theory that Jessica was behind all of the murders ; ).

    I like your sense of humor, too : ). Your deeper point about an amateur sleuth makes a lot of sense. There really has to be some sort of connection between the sleuth and either the victim or one of the suspects for the reader to believe the sleuth poking around and, more to the point, people answering the sleuth's questions, cooperating with her or him, etc.. In fact, it was partly that sort of unreality that, in my opinion made the Thomas L. Thornton (writing as Melissa Cleary) Jackie Walsh series start to fall flat. Too many improbabilities given she was an amateur.

  5. Quite a few amateur sleuths are reporters - which makes sense as they'd be slightly more likely to run into dead bodies and other oddities than the local caterer, or at least a good writer can make it plausible. Jan Burke's series features a reporter as does Mary Daheim's Alpine series.

    Lots of other amateur sleuths seem to be related to a law enforcement professional - Mary Daheim's other series features a B&B owner who is married to a cop (or ex-cop as he becomes) and in Dianne Mott Davidson's Goldy Shulz series Goldy is also married to a cop. I guess those are more plausible than the ones where a Jessica Fletcher type character trips over a body every time they leave the house although I have to say I do read some of those too. I find if the characters are interesting, some effort has been made to devise a plausible premise for the amateur sleuth and the books don't take themselves too seriously I can suspend my disbelief for a while and accept that a cleaner, chef or book shop owner would be involved in a new mystery every time they turn around. My books don't always have to be realistic for me to enjoy them.

  6. By the way Margot I send you an email about getting your postal address to send you your prize but I haven't heard from you. I'm leaving this off-topic note in case my email went into your spam folder (it tends to happen as I usually put prize or winner in the subject line).

  7. Bernadette - Thanks for mentioning Jan Burke's series; it's a good one. You're right that the sleuth's job has a lot to do with whether or not the sleuthing's believable. Lilian Jackson Braun's Jim Qwilleran is also a reporter, so his sleuthing's plausible, too. I hadn't thought about series where the sleuth is married to a cop but again, that makes sense.

    In the end, you're also right that if a book's well-written, the characters are interesting and there are enough twists and so on to keep the reader's interest, it's easier to suspend disbelief and still really enjoy a series. I honestly think that was my problem with Thornton's Jackie Walsh series. The characters got too flat and the books started to get predictable.

    Thanks for having sent your Email. I never got it, so what I suspect is that it got sent to my spam folder and deleted. I couldn't find a place on your blog to Email you, so could I bother you to send me another? Thanks! I am really excited about being a winner, and so glad you had the contest!

  8. I think if I was on a cruise or train journey and spotted Jessica Fletcher or Hercule Poirot I would get off.
    I like my crime fiction to have a semblance of reality which is why I can believe private detectives in LA and in the Golden Age. But when police detectives are sent from one end of England to another and readily accepted by the local force I find it questionable.

    Salvo Montalbano Andrea Camileri's police detective is one of my favourites because virtually anything can happen in Sicily and be believable. When Colin Dexter or Henning Mankell constructs a series with Oxford and Ystad having murder rates that exceed Palermo or Jo'Burg one might have doubts, Camilleri does not have that problem.

  9. After reading your blog I can now understand why you are ranked 650,625 in Books on

    Perhaps if you were to put as much effort into your books, as you do your blog, you could at least improve your rating by 10-15 places.

  10. Uriah - I had to laugh at your comment about Hercule Poirot and Jessica Fletcher. Either would make me think twice about traveling, too :).

    I agree, too, that it can be very hard to believe the scenarios in some mystery plots, where detectives don't have to establish credibility, or where amateurs get the police to cooperate with no effort at all.

    Your last point is also really interesting. The setting has a lot to do with how plausible a story is. I have to admit I haven't been to Sicily, but it's easy to imagine a lot of different things happening there, and a lot of people getting involved, that wouldn't happen in a quiet rural village. Some authors manage this by having their sleuths travel to different places in the series. That can be successful but in the long run, it can wear thin, too. Thanks for making me think about that.

  11. I would never move to the Midsomer area either ;D

    So many fine comments already, but I think credibility is rated higher today than at Lord Peter Wimsey´s time. Then nobody wondered about private detectives getting involved in one murder after the other, always solving them before the police had even begun to grasp what was going on.
    I remember that someone asked P.D. James if she was going to write more stories about Cordelia Gray. Her answer was that if she came up with a plot that was suitable for a private detective she would.

  12. Dorte - I'm so glad that you brought up changes in what readers expect from their mystery novels! You are absolutely right that today's mystery readers want situations, characters and events to be believable. During the time of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, readers seem to have been much more willing to suspend disbelief and accept an improbable hero, set of circumstances, etc., so long as the story was good. I'm not sure that's true now, and I think P.D. James is wise to realize what readers want.

  13. Margot I haven't been to Sicily either but I have driven through parts of Naples, Caserta and Salerno where you feel anything could happen.